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Smell test targets asymptomatic malaria carriers

Published on 15/05/18 at 09:32am

Asymptomatic carriers of malaria may be responsible for the onwards transmission of up to 90% of cases, highlighting the importance of a new method of quickly identifying these individuals. Current tests can be unreliable or simply not carried out, if there are no symptoms.

However, new research has been able to identify these individuals far more reliably than conventional screening methods.

The new form of screening would be based around the odour of an individual carrying the malaria virus; it has already been discovered that mosquitos are particularly attracted to those animals that are harbouring the malaria virus, which has been discovered to be as a result of the odour given off by the carriers.

The team of researchers, from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Zurich, examined the volatile chemicals responsible for this smell by taking samples from children in Kenya.

In total, 400 children were involved in the study and, using gas chromatography-mass spectrometry, were able to identify the characteristics of acute and asymptomatic infections.

In a bonus against traditional microscope evaluations, this method was able to reliably identify infections in minute quantities, even when there were no observable results under the microscope.

The detection rate across the study was close to 100%, even when the children involved were showing no signs of infection.

“This high detection rate was encouraging,” says Consuelo De Moraes, Professor of Biocommunication & Entomology at ETH Zurich. “The specific signature is not created by the presence or absence of specific compounds, but through a change in the concentrations of compounds that are also present in healthy people. Our task was to filter out the right signals from the extensive background noise.”

The hope is that this research can now be used to develop a simple diagnostic test, using the biomarkers uncovered to identify those individuals, both symptomatic and asymptomatic, that require treatment.

If such a test is created, it could mean a strong pushback against the malaria infection, which was responsible for the deaths of 429,000 in 2015.

Ben Hargreaves

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